“Given your faith tradition, why did you major in Philosophy?”
That was the question my professor asked as we walked together across the University of Mississippi’s campus. I was a sophomore who only recently changed my major from International Studies to Philosophy. He was getting to know me better and his question presumed that students from Evangelical, Baptist and Pentecostal backgrounds were suspicious of the subject, thinking it would challenge their cherished beliefs. But I don’t think he was trying to insult me, the only black student majoring in Philosophy at the time. As philosophers often do, he was simply trying to get answers.
I told him that my faith was strong. I had been an agnostic during my teenage years and a radical encounter with God opened me up to mysteries that can’t be evaded by science or philosophy. I was also called into the Gospel ministry and that too was a miracle. Majoring in Philosophy would help me in attempting to explain to others what I experienced, so that they too may come to faith in Jesus Christ. I was a man of many questions and I didn’t want shallow answers to them. I was sure others wanted deeper answers too.
My professor was satisfied with my response. He was not seeking to turn me into an agnostic once more. I think he found it both odd and inspiring that a man of deep faith did not shy away from deep inquiries.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a thinker. I read voraciously. I have more books than clothes. Bookstores and coffee shops feel like a second home. Colleagues recently nicknamed me “Professor” and it was thus fitting that I be employed by Alcorn to teach Ethics. Well read, well dressed, and well mannered, I fit the respectability politics of the black bourgeois even though I’m a country boy at heart.
But what confuses people is that I also have a religion I can feel. A religion in which signs and wonders are so common they are ordinary. Dreams, visions, prophetic utterances. Worship that lifts you into the third heaven. An unshakeable commitment to the crucified and literally, bodily, and historically resurrected Lord Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. I have seen bodies healed, demons cast out, alcoholics sober up by the power of God. Mines is not the thinking man’s religion, so I’m told. But I wouldn’t have a religion I couldn’t feel sometimes. It was good enough for Paul and Silas. It is good enough for millions of Christians in Latin America and Africa and Asia. It is good enough for me.
In my life I have connected religion of the head with religion of the heart (and religion of the hand). Many see me civically engaged or writing blogs and articles. They think I’m all hand or head. But what really motivates all of that is the heart religion God gave me when I was seventeen. It was a peace and power for which I long sought. I grew up thinking the religion of my youth was nothing more than therapy that kept people unchanged and in their places. Some of that is true. And that must change. But what the Lord gave me in the twilight of my high school years was life altering. And even when I tried to run from it, God had a way of chasing me. Even after I received the call to ministry I resisted because I was only a few months away from moving from Hazlehurst to Oxford for college. Growing up a sheltered kid, I didn’t want to be branded as the preacher boy. But in God’s providence, a woman of God who never met me before had a word from the Lord: “The Lord said stop running!” You can’t hide from God.
I long for justice and human flourishing. I want everyone to have good food for nourishing, a safe home for shelter, a viable career. I want Mississippi to move from the bottom to the top. I want jobs, entrepreneurship, a creative economy, and shared prosperity for all our citizens. I want a broken criminal justice system fixed and I want excellent education and adequate healthcare for everyone.
But if that’s all we have, it’s not enough.
More than anything I want every soul to encounter the God I met for real when I was seventeen. I want God to radically change lives in ways that no government, business, education, or culture can.
I want others to have a religion they can think through, a religion they can feel.